$17 million flood protection project pays off in Montevideo

As rivers flood all across Minnesota and the Wisconsin border, some cities are watching new investments pay off on dry land. In Montevideo, for example, a $17 million flood protection project finished just in time.

The banks of the Minnesota River are nowhere to be seen in the Chippewa County city, erased by floodwaters last week.

The river is in a major flood stage, rising almost five feet above its normal limits. But a lot of nearby homes are bone dry because of a levee just finished in the last few months.

"That entire area would’ve been completely underwater," said city manager Robert Wolfington of a neighborhood along the river. "Our Pioneer Village would’ve been completely underwater. And City Hall here would’ve been at risk of flooding as well."

That’s what happened in 1997 and Wolfington says the flood protection project has roots in that emergency. Mayor Erich Winter says it was usually expensive and time-consuming to gather volunteers and try to fend off the river.

"We obviously were probably tired of sandbagging a lot and it was time to put up a levee to protect the city," said Winter.

The city built up the levee across 2,300 feet, but in sections as they came up with funding themselves and from the state.

In the end, the project cost about three times the city’s entire annual budget. It’s held off the Minnesota River, but it doesn’t protect homes along the Chippewa River.

"I always thought they kind of put it on the wrong side of the river," said Montevideo resident Judy Larson.

At the end of town where there is no levee, the water of the river came very close to Larson’s house. She's alone on Chippewa Street in the Smith Addition part of the city where the government bought up almost every home but hers.

Her home is in a flood zone, but she’s not leaving the home where her family has lived for about 50 years.

"I’m here," she said. "This is home. This is where my kids grew up. This is a cool spot."

Her home may stay unprotected, but the city is hoping the levee means they’ll start seeing new homes along the Minnesota River where developers might’ve previously hesitated to build.

"If you have that risk of flooding on a consistent basis, it’s hard to encourage development into some areas of the community," Wolfington said.

Even with the levee, the city intends to declare a flood emergency on Monday.